I picked up this book when I was in London last fall visiting the Frontline Club, having learned about this organization while doing research for a new novel. Frontline (unrelated to the PBS television series) was founded by a handful of Brits during the Soviet-Afghan War—all of them freelance correspondents: writers, photographers, videographers, filmmakers, etc. Journalists who are not on staff at major news outlets often jump into conflict hot spots with no funding, no insurance, and no support of any kind. This book describes the birth of a freelance agency specifically set up for such war correspondents. Frontline’s founders conceived it as a for-profit business—or rather, one that would in time earn a profit. With pooled resources, they started an agency through which footage, stills, and writing could be sold to the BBC and other news organizations. As time went on, finances became increasingly problematic. A telling illustration of the difficulty of making a go of it: In the 1990s, footage that brought £700 could continue earning a videographer more money through the sale of usage to other outlets, including burgeoning Internet sites. By 2003 that fee was halved, and broadcasters demanded more control, including Internet rights—for no extra dough. The Frontliners eventually had to face the music, calling it quits as a business early in the Iraq War. Worse than the money lost and the impressive work that was (by and large) poorly compensated, Frontline lost members in some of the most violent places on the planet, deep in the heart of war zones many news organizations hesitate to send their own staff correspondents.
The good news is that Frontline perseveres, even if in an entirely different guise. The Frontline Club is a charity with a mission to support worthy causes, such as the Frontline Fund, raising money for the families of fixers killed or injured while working with the international media. Housed in a London building a stone’s throw from Paddington Station, the ground floor is an outstanding restaurant where you may spot international journalists —provided you know what they look like—and can view an impressive photographic collection. (If you go, save room for the sticky toffee dessert.) Upstairs, the clubroom is a large, comfortable spot for members to gather, lamplit tables, worn leather cigar chairs, and walls lined with cases of memorabilia, letters, antique implements, and more photographs. It was a quiet night when my husband David and I visited, so we were privileged with a private tour. The top floor of the building provides low-cost lodging for international journalists traveling through London. Frontline Club members enjoy reciprocal membership in other press organizations and have access to lectures, films, and workshops and training in safety practices and dealing with trauma—something that has become even more critical in recent years, given the accumulation of kidnappings and brutal murders of war correspondents.
The 4-star rating I give this book at Goodreads was not arrived at easily. I generally reserve 5 stars for books in which the language grips me hard. There were times that I wanted to reach into the text, nudge and shape its direction and tone, or ask the author for more information, for clarity in spots that left me dangling and confused. Story lines holding promise for deeper exploration occasionally end abruptly, causing this reader to lapse into a a frustrated huff and toss the book aside for a while. I always came back for more.
But make no mistake: This book is chock-full of truly moving stories, laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes, tragic miscalculations, and derring-do. There are eccentric renegades who risked everything—possessed of a passion to bring awareness of the true costs of war to a lackadaisical public. Some of these journalists left behind lineage, title, family castles, and so forth, modern swashbuckling types who make one think of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Lord Flashman” novel series. David Loyn brings them to life with descriptions of clothing, habits, dialogue, flaws and peccadillos. We feel skin prickling with the desert heat, the lurking danger, and the slap-happy recklessness of adrenalin junkies who might as well be juggling dynamite.
I’m glad to have found this book and this organization. If you follow news of conflict around the world, if you’ve wondered what attracts some to plunge into jeopardy, I recommend “Frontline: Reporting from the World’s Deadliest Places” without hesitation.
View some of my other reviews at Goodreads.